Twice a Stranger: How Mass Expulsion Forged Modern Greece and Turkey 
by Bruce Clark.
Granta, 274 pp., £20, March 2006, 1 86207 752 5
Show More
Show More

‘Live your myth in Greece,’ the Greek National Tourism Office urges us. This summer’s posters feature a young couple, children running along the beach behind them, while an anonymous columned temple hovers implausibly in the Aegean haze. Greece, it seems, has no history except ancient history. In Turkey, too, you can swim in the morning, and climb up to the theatre of ancient Pergamon the same afternoon. But how many of those who do so ever give any attention to those other ruins, of 19th-century neoclassical town houses, which dot the back streets of nearby Bergama? Ayvalik, down the coast, is also full of them, some restored and turned into hotels, others ready for demolition. For within living memory, Ayvalik was a Greek town, just as Mytilene, across the bay, was home to thousands of Muslims.

Abandoned villas, mosques and churches can be found across the Aegean, and for the archaeologist of modernity they provide a rich source of information about the upheavals that shook this part of the world in the 20th century. When the Ottoman Empire collapsed and was succeeded by nation-states, the region became a laboratory for brutal new forms of statecraft. Diplomats thought the unthinkable, and millions of people were uprooted by international fiat in the first organised population exchange of the century. Leaving their homes behind, Christians and Muslims became Greeks and Turks, and were encouraged to forget their past. The historian wonders if it had to happen; the politician asks whether it worked. But the stories provided by the now elderly refugees – ‘Lausanne’s children’, as Bruce Clark calls them – shed a different light on the legacy of the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne.

If these modern ruins now force themselves on our attention, it’s because of what happened in the Balkans in the 1990s. ‘The hour of Europe has dawned,’ Luxembourg’s foreign minister, Jacques Poos, exulted in the spring of 1991. And so it had, though not in the way he meant. He believed he had brought the fighting in Yugoslavia to an end; in fact, it had scarcely begun. Over the next few years, the Bosnian Serbs, in particular, familiarised us with the idea that the mass flight of refugees might be a deliberate goal, rather than an accidental by-product, of nationalist war-making. The Balkan Wars of 1912-13 no longer seemed so distant, and Bosnia’s ethnic cleansing – whether pushed through in the heat of battle, or outlined in the blueprints of would-be peacemakers – invited comparison with many of the century’s other involuntary movements of peoples.

Europe has a long history of ethnic cleansing and forced resettlement. As romantic nationalism made its way eastwards in the 19th century, to the region between the Baltic and the Aegean, the allegiances and expectations which held the old empires together were loosened. Newly founded nation-states in the Balkans, indifferent to the wishes of their Great Power sponsors, stirred things up by highlighting the suffering of their ‘unredeemed’ brothers. Under Kaiser Wilhelm II, Germans and Poles fought to stamp their national imprint on the land (applying methods of rural colonisation that the Prussian Zionist Arthur Ruppin exported to Ottoman Palestine). Austria-Hungary found it hard to digest the Slavs it had swallowed when it occupied Bosnia in 1878. But the greatest upheavals took place around the Black Sea. Between the Crimean War and 1914, hundreds of thousands of Circassians, Tatars and other Muslims fled the Russians for the safety of the Ottoman Empire.

Ethnic cleansing on a modest scale had accompanied the establishment of nation-states in the Balkans from the time of the Greek War of Independence. But people were forced off their land in much larger numbers during the Balkan Wars. Bulgarian and Serb irregulars in particular targeted Muslim peasants, and tens of thousands of dispossessed farmers fled to Anatolia, where some formed irregular bands of their own and evicted Christian villagers living on the Aegean seaboard. On the eve of the First World War, therefore, a series of tit-for-tat expulsions was already underway, passions were rising, and governments were looking for ways to gain control of the situation. The first inter-governmental population agreements were drawn up in the Balkans – between the Bulgarians and the Ottomans. Greece, too, was negotiating a partial population exchange with the Ottomans when the First World War got in the way.

Up until then, however, such agreements had been limited and chiefly reflected a traditional concern with border security. In an age of nationalism, governments were coming to regard whole national groups as potential enemies, and tried to keep or move them away from their frontiers. Yet huge numbers of Christian subjects of the Ottoman sultan still lived contentedly in Anatolia and Istanbul, while the large majority of Muslim farmers who had come under Greek rule in Macedonia decided to stay where they were. There were still Greek deputies in the Ottoman parliament, and Muslims in the Greek parliament. Once a military campaign was over, it seemed that people liked, when possible, to go back to their old life, without worrying about who their neighbours were. Below the surface, Clark’s interviewees preserve fond memories of those times, patterned according to the old ways of inter-confessional coexistence, though hindsight says it was doomed. Yet in 1914, or even in 1918, it didn’t look that way to millions of people who would be made homeless only a few years later.

The old order was brought to an end by the First World War’s long and vicious aftermath. On the shores of the Baltic between 1918 and 1920, fighting among Germans, Poles and Russians ended with several hundred thousand Germans fleeing newly independent Poland. The governor of East Prussia suggested a population exchange; his idea was not taken up, but it was only a year or two ahead of its time. Further south, the Greek army had taken advantage of the Ottoman Empire’s defeat to land in Smyrna, where they hoped to prepare the ground for the revived Byzantine empire – the Greece of Two Continents and the Five Seas as it was known at the time – which nationalists had been demanding for decades. Having acquired Crete, Samos, Epiros and Macedonia, and with Istanbul under Allied military occupation, the momentum seemed to be with them. But Turkish nationalists, led by Mustafa Kemal, rallied in central Anatolia, forced the Greeks onto the back foot just outside Ankara and gradually pushed them out of the country. In 1922, as hundreds of thousands of Orthodox Christians fled the Kemalist forces, Smyrna went up in flames and thousands of Greeks and Armenians were killed. Turkey became a republic and the Ottoman dynasty went into exile. In Greece, the monarchy collapsed, and leading members of the government were tried by a kangaroo court and executed.

As the destitute refugees trekked or sailed westwards to Greece, peace talks got underway in Geneva, and it was here that the plan for a formal population exchange emerged. Though its parentage is disputed, Clark shows the convergence of interests that lay behind the idea. Greece’s master diplomat, Eleftherios Venizelos, saw that getting rid of the several hundred thousand Muslims living peacefully in Greece would make property and land available for the newcomers, who could be settled in the northern borderlands, thus making these new territories ‘Greek’. The Kemalists had their own reasons to concur. An international agreement would mean there was no question of refugees being compensated or allowed to return, and might offer a way of getting rid of the hundreds of thousands of Christians who still remained in Turkey. With Anatolia severely depopulated – some two million of its Christians had been killed or driven out – 400,000 new Muslims would help to reinvigorate the economy. In addition, the newly established League of Nations, in particular its energetic and resourceful refugee commissioner, Fridtjof Nansen, was keen to demonstrate the organisation’s relevance.

Thus the Lausanne Treaty, which brought hostilities between Greece and Turkey to an end, and marked the Turkish Republic’s entry onto the international stage, included a population exchange agreement. With some small but crucial exceptions, all Orthodox Christians in Turkey would have to go to Greece, while all Muslims in Greece would leave for Turkey. About 1.3 million of the people involved were Christians (they outnumbered the Muslims by about three to one), but most of these had fled Turkey before the negotiations were completed. Thus Lausanne in effect ratified an exodus that had already taken place. The bulk of the Orthodox refugees from Anatolia, attacked by paramilitary bands and herded onto overcrowded ships, had a bad time: the Muslims leaving Greece from the summer of 1923 onwards generally departed in calmer conditions.

Religion was the criterion. Greek-speaking Cretan Muslims were packed off to Turkish ports in whose back streets the Cretan dialect may still be heard today. Turkish-speaking Christians settled in Greece, with the result that the demand for Turkish-language music and films boomed, remaining strong in Athens and Thessaloniki well into the 1950s. The Muslims of western Thrace were exempted – the old Turkish quarter in Xanthi and the Bektashi shrines in the hills above Komotini still provide glimpses of an Ottoman Greece – as was the prosperous Greek community of Istanbul. Few Greeks remain there, however. Organised pogroms in 1955 and 1964 pushed them out, and today even the future of the Oikumenical Patriarchate is in doubt.

Both Greek and Turkish politicians, pleased to have the chance to build new, ethnically homogeneous states, saw the upheaval in a positive light; but the two countries dealt with the refugees in rather different ways. With the population of Greece suddenly increased by at least a fifth, Venizelos sought the help of outside organisations. By October 1922, with refugee families squatting in the boxes in the National Theatre, and under the ruins of Olympian Zeus, Near Eastern Relief alone was feeding half a million starving newcomers. American charities and the League of Nations competed to take the lead in the resettlement effort until the League won out, raising funds in London and Paris and establishing a commission run by foreign civil servants to find the refugees homes and jobs. This caused some resentment in Greece, but on the whole the commission worked well and dozens of new settlements were established, mostly in farming land in the north of the country, diversifying the economy and dramatically altering the landscape. The League has suffered a bad press since its demise: setting up more than half a million farmers on smallholdings was certainly one of its finer moments.

Turkey went its own way. Suspicious of outside offers of help, the government – struggling to establish itself after a decade of war and implementing a far-reaching social revolution – followed an étatist model. A special refugee ministry presided over what is described here as ‘an ill-managed shambles’. Because their numbers were smaller, and because one internal crisis followed another – the Kurdish revolt of 1925, and the trials of opposition leaders the following year were the most notable – the refugees didn’t get the attention they attracted in Greece. There was something else too: Turkey was moving fast towards a one-party state, and any criticism of the ruling party’s corruption or inefficiency was silenced. Greece, on the other hand, was suffering from a ‘national schism’ between royalists and republicans; and some refugee ‘fathers’ made political careers brokering votes for Venizelist parties, while others played a prominent part on the left, especially in the new Greek Communist Party.

In both countries, however, the refugees were deeply unpopular. In Greece they were dismissed as ‘Turkish-seed’ and ‘yoghurt-baptised’, and only the shared suffering of the 1940s – first under German occupation and then during the Civil War – finally bridged the divide. Turkey, too, gave them a rather less than warm welcome. The onus was on these ‘half-infidels’, suspect on account of their strange accents and ways, to abandon their dialects and beliefs and prove themselves virtuous members of the Turkish nation.

What the two countries also shared until very recently was a powerful taboo against even mentioning the refugees. Between the wars they invested heavily in foundation myths which had no place for such awkward phenomena as Greek-speaking Muslim beys, or Christian Ottoman diplomats. Officials on either side of the Aegean saw the exchange itself as an act of redemption and rescue. They kept quiet about the pious Muslims who had sought to remain in Greece rather than return to Kemal’s secularising republic, about the Cretan Muslims who asked to convert to Orthodoxy in order to stay (they were refused), or the crypto-Christian Turkish women whose descendants still remain in touch with their Christian cousins hundreds of miles away. Indeed, these nationalist narratives glossed over the fact that the very terms ‘Greek’ and ‘Turk’ were relatively recent political labels.

As late as the 1980s, refugee ancestry was not something to boast about in Greece; in Turkey, where the ingathering started as far back as the 1860s, a cautious celebration of the past seems to have begun only over the last decade. Now, however, buses and planes carry elderly people in both directions to revisit their birthplaces and discuss not the official version, but more personal family memories with the strangers living in their old homes. It is a rare Greek or Turk whose family does not have some refugee story waiting to be discovered. Pressured to abandon their old identities and remake themselves as loyal citizens of their new homeland, the refugees often find it psychologically hard to depart from the official line. Eventually, however, many of them admit to fond memories of their early years, and reveal the difficulties they had settling in a strange country. A new generation of scholars is documenting their testimony, and films, songs and historical novels about them are very popular in both countries. One of the strengths of Twice a Stranger is its adroit use of these sources.

Was it all worth it, and did it bring peace to the region? Lausanne was hailed as a potential model for Palestine during the 1937 debates on the Peel Commission’s transfer proposals, by Hitler in the German population exchanges of 1939-41 and by Churchill (among others) for dealing with Eastern Europe’s German minorities after 1945. Today, it is invoked by political scientists and propagandists with Kosovo, Israel/Palestine or Nagorno-Karabakh on their minds. They should read this book. In some ways, the exchange did help. Conflict was dampened down, and, incredibly, Venizelos paid a friendly visit to Ankara only seven years after the Treaty. With both sets of elites in favour, official ratification led refugees to accept the definitive loss of their homes. In Cyprus, by contrast, wartime partition has not been followed by diplomatic resolution. A shared religion underpinned the acquisition of a shared nationalism; and religious uniformity, as Clark shows, facilitated the transition to non-religious governance, while preventing the triumph of a thorough-going secularism.

On the other hand, expulsion should be seen in the context of the two states’ pursuit of modernity through the homogenisation of the population. As it happened, the years 1930 to 1980 represented a phase in world history in which étatism seemed to offer a path to national welfare. Today, however, the revival of older, cross-regional networks seems to point back to the pre-national age which Lausanne destroyed, with its more ample horizons and less restrictive borders. Both Turkey and Greece now form vital links on the people-smuggling routes between Asia and Europe. An estimated one million people in Greece – maybe a tenth of the population – are immigrants. Istanbul may have lost almost all its Greeks, but its Iranian population, for example, is huge. National homogeneity and its suppressive myths no longer make economic sense. Prosperity means joining European markets, and importing cheap labour. We are not exactly returning to the old imperial multi-confessionalism but we are surely emerging from the historical parenthesis represented by the étatist nation-state. Which is why Clark’s refugees are a valuable corrective to the policymakers’ fondness for organising other people’s lives, and why the tinge of nostalgia which permeates this lucid analysis offers its own message for the future.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences